January 9, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “The Spoils of Babylon”


THE SPOILS OF BABYLON:  Thursday 10PM on IFC – Change the Channel

A lot of talent has been harnessed for IFC’s miniseries parody THE SPOILS OF BABYLON, starting with performer/producers Will Ferrell (whose Funny Or Die studio is behind the project), Tobey Maguire and Kristen Wiig, and including cast members Michael Sheen, Jessica Alba, Tim Robbins and Carey Mulligan.  The result is confused, though, and never as funny as it seems to believe itself to be.

The basic idea is to satirize the epic TV “event” miniseries of the 1970s, the era of Rich Man Poor Man, Captains and the Kings, Shogun, Once An Eagle, The Thorn Birds and the like.  In this case, the saga is supposedly circa 1979, based on a giant novel by Eric Jonrosh (Ferrell) about the forbidden love between adopted Morehouse siblings Devon (Maguire) and Cynthia (Wiig), against a backdrop of the oil industry and mid-20th century American history.  With a rebooted Dallas back on the air and the networks jumping, post-Hatifields & McCoys, into the miniseries pool, this is a potentially fertile field for parody. But writers Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele (Piedmont directed) mess up their premise by adding on the concept that Babylon was filmed by Jonrosh himself, and badly, so that the gags are about terrible production values (cardboard miniatures with toy cars for establishing shots) while the real network miniseries of the era were, in their soundstage way, relatively sumptuous.  Apparently the whole reason for this added layer of parody was so Ferrell could do a quasi-Orson Welles imitation in framing sequences as Jonrosh, presenting the miniseries to a contemporary audience, but those sequences are just a reminder of how self-indulgent Ferrell can be when he has a camera all to himself.

The bigger problem is that there’s very little substance to the comedy.  The real 1970s miniseries were wall-to-wall plot and crammed with colorful supporting characters (often played by stars of the network’s primetime series), but the first hour of Babylon‘s three (after tonight, the show will air in half-hour segments) had few characters and no real twists, doing little more than repeating how Cynthia wanted romance with Devon and he, however tempted, resisted.  Piedmont and Steele’s gags are on the sub-Mel Brooks order of an inscription on a gifted compass that goes on, and on, and on.  Maguire is miscast as an epic lead, even (especially) a comic one, and Wiig all too easily falls back on her SNL sketch broadness; the overall feel was like an old Carol Burnett Show where Carol had to work too hard to carry a less than hilarious guest star.  As their father, Robbins had a nicely demented gleam in his eye, but little to do with it.  The cast member who came off best, oddly enough, was Carey Mulligan, who supplied the voice of the mannequin who (for whatever reason) plays Devon’s British wife.  Mulligan was the only one around who seemed to get the principle that playing this material perfectly straight was the way to unearth its laughs.

Funny Or Die made its name with short online sketches, and Spoils of Babylon, despite its supposed large scale and unified concept, comes off as one clip after another, becoming as wearying as an hour spent clicking on those would be.  There are some spot-on bits, like the fake logos and credits that precede each half-hour, and the “Theme from The Spoils of Babylon” sung by Steve Lawrence, but they don’t add up to much.  In the end, running one of the real old-time miniseries 45 years later, in all its pompously soapy seriousness, would probably have made for funnier programming.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."